CEQA Roundup: Faced with budget uncertainty (again), how much can Steinberg do?

150 150 Justin Ewers

The Presidio Parkway project and Senate leader Darrell Steinberg. (Photo Credit: Presidio Parkway & Angel Cardenas)

The state budget continued to muscle CEQA off the political stage this week, with the governor announcing a less-rosy fiscal forecast than many had expected—and the lukewarm response from Democrats offering a glimpse at just how much CEQA reform’s foremost champion, Senate leader Darrell Steinberg, currently has on his plate.

Only a few days after wading back into the state’s complex water issues, Steinberg also led Democratic lawmakers’ pushback against the governor’s top budget priority—a new funding formula for schools—along with an array of other proposals affecting everything from the courts to health and human services.

“There’s a disappointing aspect to [the governor’s budget],” Steinberg said, voicing concern among Democrats that the state isn’t doing enough to restore cuts made during the recession. “The budget debate [now] begins in earnest,” Steinberg warned. (That conversation has become even more heated after the LAO’s released its analysis of the state’s fiscal situation today.)

With CEQA reform also waiting in the wings (a task so politically complicated Steinberg has jokingly said his legislation could be called the “How to Make No Friends Act”), it does beg the question: How much can one man do?

CEQA to the back burner?

It’s true that it’s been only a few weeks since Steinberg released the details of his CEQA proposal, which he says is aimed at finding “that elusive middle ground” between the interests of business, environmental, and labor groups. (Click here for our summary of the bill.)

In its current form, Steinberg’s bill has already earned the support of several important business groups, including the California Chamber of Commerce and the California Manufacturers and Technology Association. Environmentalists remain wary of some parts of the proposal (setting thresholds for environmental impacts like traffic and noise, in particular). Organized labor’s views remain mostly unknown.

Gov. Brown himself has acknowledged CEQA reform is so difficult, “it’s not something you get done in a year”—even, presumably, when the political stars are aligned and lawmakers can focus on the issue. (The governor’s office has since walked back some of those comments).

With the debate about the state’s fiscal situation escalating this week, it’s likely that the budget—and not CEQA—will become Steinberg’s top priority. The Legislature has a deadline of June 15 to negotiate its way through $96 billion worth of budgetary details. It’s only natural to believe that will be a distraction—and that for the time being, CEQA will remain on the back burner.

Regions push for change

The vagaries of the budget cycle certainly haven’t dampened the push for CEQA reform outside the capital. As the California Economic Summit continues its series of sixteen regional forums across the state on creating jobs in California—an effort that will culminate in the second-annual Summit this November in Los Angeles—updating CEQA continues to emerge as a top priority.

In forums from the San Joaquin Valley and Sierras to the Bay Area and Orange County, regional leaders from the fields of business, education, labor, and the nonprofit sector alike believe abuses of the law are standing in the way of sustainable development in the state.

At a recent forum in San Francisco, a group of economic development experts agreed that without making changes to CEQA, regions like the Bay Area simply cannot address one of their most pressing needs: Rebuilding the state’s crumbling infrastructure.

A recent study concluded that after years of neglect, California is currently facing a $765 infrastructure “deficit” over the next 10 years. To meet the needs of a growing population, the state must find a way to make investments in everything from public transit to crumbing school buildings.

“I would say CEQA is part of our state infrastructure deficit,” said Steve Heminger, executive director of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, the Bay Area’s regional transportation planning and finance agency.

The single free-est thing”

“When you talk to elected officials in Sacramento about infrastructure spending, you can see their eyes glaze over. But this isn’t just about goods movement or connecting workers with their jobs—it’s about making [expensive coastal regions like] the Bay Area more affordable,” said Gabriel Metcalf, executive director of the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR), a group that promotes long-term planning and sustainable infill development.

“If we can invest in transportation systems and transit, and we can get people down from two cars to one, we’ll allow a lot more people to live here. We’ll all benefit from that.”

With the state once again facing an uncertain fiscal forecast, finding a way to pay for these investments remains elusive. Metcalf, for one, believes CEQA reform offers a solution: “Updating CEQA is probably the single free-est thing we could do as a state to take on our land-use challenges.”

Budget negotiations in Sacramento may move CEQA from the top of the agenda for the time being, but reformers across the state seem determined not to let it stay there for long.


Justin Ewers

All stories by: Justin Ewers